Our narrator's too smart to tell you his name ("if I [did], you'd be as clever as me"), but he's not afraid to tell you everything else about the "layer cake"--London's intricately arranged constellation of underworld fiefdoms. He's a drug dealer who's planning to retire on his thirtieth birthday--after one last great score--to a life as "a gentleman of leisure." Only problem is his boss, the crime kingpin "don" Jimmy Price, has other plans. He can walk away from the life for good only if he can track down a runaway daughter for Jimmy's old friend.
Complicating matters are two million top-grade Ecstasy tablets that were robbed from a factory in Amsterdam by a renegade outfit in Jimmy's employ who are now looking for someone to offload the ill-gotten loot. With an angry mob of German neo-Nazis in hot pursuit, and all crosses and double-crosses leading back to Jimmy, our narrator finds he may have to negotiate a new exit strategy to finally get his slice of the cake.
With a rich supporting cast of dozens of characters, from Tommy Garret, aka Billy Bogus, a grifter with an uncanny gift for impersonation, to Sir Alex, chief chemical taster and a "boy who knows his drugs," Layer Cake is a gripping, linguistically inventive thriller, a cross between Irvine Welsh and Dennis Lehane that keeps you turning the pages until the very end.
The worst thing about drug dealing, whether you're a classy top dealer trading millions or a down-and-out street pusher, is that you have to relate to a lot of total idiots - loudmouths and tough-guy wannabes who aren't afraid to "get nicked by old bill and thrown in the boob" (arrested by police and jailed). The unnamed main character of Connolly's flawless, lightning-swift pulp crime drama - rich in the language of the British underworld - is a smoothly diplomatic 29-year-old cocaine dealer who has earned a respected place among England's Mafia elite. He manages high-level trafficking with a tough old veteran partner, Mister Mortimer, a man who has seen his share of prison and deadly fights. Just as the young dealer is eyeing an early retirement from the business, big boss Jimmy Price hands down a tough assignment: find Charlotte Ryder, the missing rich princess daughter of Jimmy's old pal Edward, a powerful construction business player and gossip papers socialite. Complicating matters are two million pounds' worth of Grade A ecstasy, a brutal neo-Nazi sect and a whole series of double crossings. Navigating the many levels of the international underworld, Connolly convincingly chronicles his anti-hero's transformation from a turn-the-other-cheek diplomat to a revenge-charged hit man, setting his sights on anyone who stands in his way. It's the good bad guys against the bad bad guys in this brilliantly crafted, linguistically dense, European wise-guy tale, and readers will find themselves funning for the triumph of lesser evil.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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August 30, 2004
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Excerpt from Layer Cake by J. J. Connolly
Hello, Hello, Hello
I parked the motor under a streetlight so there's less chance of anyone breaking into it. I locked it up, got my briefcase outta the back and was walking towards my gaff. I'm preoccupied with my work. Suddenly a flashlight's pointed straight in my face. I've squinted, I'm alarmed. The light's gone down my body. It's the law, I've thought. The game's up cos I've got in the case two kilos of top quality, very pukka, recently imported, cocaine. It's about forty kay or twelve years' worth, depending how you look at it, what tariff you wanna use. I've got electronic jewellery scales and Manatol, Italian baby laxative, on board as well. I'm gutted cos I very, very rarely take my work home with me and to get nicked on this rare occasion would slaughter me. Don't do anything stupid, don't do anything at all, take a deep breath and don't even think about running. Relax, work it out, stop holding your breath, cos if they had come for you, you'd be on the deck now, cuffed up and getting the old 'you do not have to say anything, blah blah blah' routine.
'Sorry, Sir, you okay?' He's genuinely apologetic. 'Only we've had reports of a prowler in the area.'
'A prowler, you say, well well. And there's only the two of you? Maybe you should call for some assistance.'
'We're a bit stretched already tonight, Sir.'
'That's too bad. I'll ring the station if I see or hear anything.' 'Thank you, Sir. Good night. Be careful.' 'Oh, I will be.'
They carry on looking for the burglar in among the bushes and I go upstairs to weave that special kinda magic that turns two kilos into three.
April Fool's Day 1997
Welcome to the Layer Cake
'Well, where the fuck is he?'
'I don't know, Morty. I really can't answer that question. Ask me one on sport.'
'Fuck off. What time does your watch say?'
'Probably the same as yours, exactly two minutes past four.' 'And he said he'd be here at four?'
'On the dot?'
'And he's usually on time?'
'Yeah. He's usually very punctual.'
'So where the fuck is he?'
I'm waiting and I fuckin hate waiting. A guy's meant to be turning up to buy from myself and Mister Mortimer a half-kilo of the finest, purest cocaine this side of the River Thames for twenty thousand pounds cash sterling. If you were an alien looking down on this little scene, one earthling giving another earthling the year's earnings of most people for a bag of white powder that started life growing on a tree, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all a little bit strange. I must admit that some days I still, after all this time, find it a tad surreal. Thank fuck it's illegal, I say.
So now it's Friday afternoon and me and Mort are waiting for a party by the name of Jeremy to turn up and collect the half-kilo that we've put aside for him. It's gonna cost him the twenty thou and we're making out we're gonna be doing him a big favour cos we'll have to find other people to take the rest of the key. We usually try to move only whole kilos. Sometimes it's a problem, but then again, sometimes it's really handy to have half a kilo knocking around. We always make out it's big probs for us to be chopping kilos about. We always make a bitova fuss but we always do it. Business is business. This particular half-key is just pure bunce cos it's the result of us chopping and cutting a little bit more than usual over the last couple of weeks, so Jeremy's twenty can be carved up between us cos we don't owe anything or anybody for it.
I've got my Gucci loafers off, my feet up on the desk in the back office of the letting agency I've got a stake in. The April sun's blasting through the window and I've got a slight breeze blowing through my toes. We've just had a nice bit of lunch in an Italian gaff offa Marylebone High Street where they do some very sexy things with chickens and tomato sauces, the weekend is upon us, and Terry and Clarkie, the kids, as Morty calls our junior partners when they're outta earshot, are out and about running errands. Things are very sweet and I'm as content as my nature will allow. I just wish that Jeremy would hurry the fuck up because I'm starting to get a little bit anxious, I always do when people are running late. I get a wee bit twitchy.
The Golden Rule: Stay as far away from the end-user as humanly possible otherwise it's gimme a freebie, gimme a clue, gimme a move, gimme shelter, gimme a bitta bail chief, gimme a drop of unsecured credit and I say gimme a fuckin break, gimme a day off, gimme fuckin strength. Some days in this line of work you can be left thinking, Is there civilised life anywhere in this whole fuckin universe? In this whole fuckin solar system? Sometimes I doubt it but all this insanity's good for business. We're making so much money playing neat and tidy that we're running outta places to plug the loot. Life is so fuckin good I can taste it in my spit. Demand is high and so is supply but I just wish to fuck that la-dee-da Jeremy would hurry the fuck up.
We always work neat and tidy, we always work as a small team. I try and turn away people who are messy, who are noisy, who'll get us nicked big time, who have to be seen as players, the loud-mouths and braggers. People who are neat and tidy like ourselves we can do business with. All that being flash with racy motors, wearing gaudy diamonds and gold trinkets, the big fuck-off attitude, is just begging to get yourself nicked. No point rubbing the law's noses in your success. What's called for is some peace and quiet, discretion, a low profile so you can crack on uninterrupted and let the Other People go after the noisy, boisterous folk. Some people will say you've got no business being in the game if you ain't double flash with your ill-gotten gains, really upping the old bill with 'em. Why have big dollar if you can't let people know you got big dollar? In this game it often helps if you can agree to disagree with some people, but it ain't always possible.
Don't get me wrong, I ain't saying we live like monks or anything and we ain't exactly on our bellies chipping away at the coalface of life either. On the face of things I run a very successful lettings agency but my legit partner takes care of that on a day-to-day basis. It gives me a bit of income and the pick of some very creamy gaffs to plot up in for six months at a time, but most important it provides a very tidy front to lose myself behind. I've always said I wanna be outta this game by the time I'm thirty. I'm twenty-nine now so this year's gonna be all about getting all my shit together in the one pile. I've seen guys hang around too long in the game until they either get themselves nicked or they simply lose the plot, start doing far too much of the product, get weak or paranoid or both and end up losing everything, become sad cases. Some guys are just too fuckin greedy.
A lot of operators in this powders game only know this swindle, it's their whole fuckin life. They don't know anything else so if they did manage to get out they'd be fucked for something else to do with their time. Everyone, even dealers, needs a sense of purpose. It's not about the money anymore either cos they got as much as you can spend in a lifetime anyway so it's become a fuckin powder power trip for them. Year after year they plod on, some of them don't even get to see the stuff, just take the prime cut on pay day and how bad's that, but that was never my plan cos you still gotta watch your back twenty-four-seven. In and out before I'm thirty but set up for life, a gentleman of leisure. All my moneys spun and back in the system clean as a whistle. I wanna be nicely set up with legit business interests spread all around, a portfolio, a bit here, a bit over there and that'll do nicely thank you very much. I wanna be un-fuckin-touchable.
Am I getting there? Very much so I'm getting there. We place a lotta stuff with a lotta people. We're very close to the top of our particular pyramid, to guys who actually bring the goods onto British soil, the importers, the real big-time money-men, the vicious international players. We get our supply at a price that's right. When these guys start talking they're talking in millions of pounds, hundreds of kilos. Maybe some of the guys I work with will make the leap up into the big leagues and manage to stay there, but I won't be going along with them. Thirty and I'm out. Have a plan and stick to it.
A kilo of very high-grade snorting cocaine, even with the very top, the very very best stuff, skimmed offa the top to make crack, is gonna cost the guy I sell it to twenty-seven and a half grand at today's market price. We, obviously, get it for a lot less than that from the guy who deals with the international players, an old-school Don, name of Jimmy Price, gawd bless him. We work with his blessing and protection but at a price. Jimmy will allow us bail, or credit, up to half a million pounds because over the time we've worked through him we've built up a very good credit rating, so now we just call on what we need and it ain't a problem. Jimmy wouldn't know whether to snort the coke or rub it on his genitals, it ain't his thing, although some of his generation have been known to go totally wobbly with it. Jimmy has no fuckin interest in the effects of the stuff whatsoever, don't like seeing people getting outta control. He's probably very rarely laid eyes on the goods and he certainly don't put his hands on the product. Sir James oversees, if you like, the sometimes messy business of getting it from A to Z. He gets his handling charge for handling something he doesn't even touch. He's a hands-off senior management executive. Having Mister Price's protection is no guarantee of anything cos there's too many hounds about, but I can tell you that it helps being connected. He trusts us to go to work with a high degree of tact and discretion. He knows we're not sloppy wankers and it's certainly in his interest for us to go to work unhindered.
The funny thing is that I've only met Mister Price twice in my life. Once I shook his hand at some seriously moody boxing dinner and another time we were introduced at the wedding reception of Clarkie's creamy younger sister, very briefly and with a minimum of fuss. Morty works with Gene McGuire, who's what the Sunday papers would call an enforcer for Jimmy Price, but he's more a bodyguard-cum-professional-best-mate. He does Jimmy's bidding and Jimmy trusts him with his life. The money and goods go backwards and forwards through Morty and Gene and everyone gets fat together, very fat, baby-chubby.
Morty looks after getting the supply and I look after the selling-on of the product. Having a geezer like Mort around means that nobody who's got any sense is gonna fuck with us cos he's a fearless and ruthless cunt is Morty and he's got a squad of other ruthless and fearless cunts to call on if need be. There's many myths and legends surrounding him and the gist of them all is that you'd have to be fuckin mad or suicidal or both to mess him about. He don't suffer fools for a minute cos first they're very irritating and second they can get you very seriously nicked in this game. I've never actually seen him perform but with guys like Morty you don't have to have seen it to know it can be done. I've seen him warn some very fuckin heavy guys away from our drop of work and they've stayed warned for a long time after.
Morty looks like a cross between Marvellous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, taller, but maybe Morty would weigh in at light-heavy these days in spite of spending all those hours in the gym. He's a class act. He likes his ladies, his clothes and a quarter mill a year in his kick. Mister Mortimer is a highly respected geezer and to a lot of firms around London it's the one thing they have in common is a mutual respect for Morty. He's even been asked to sort out disputes, but he don't get involved cos he just don't need the aggravation. He's earned his respect across the board through a drop of charm and a dose of violence, but Morty will tell you it is sometimes necessary. Morty says he will explain but not justify.
About fifteen years ago Morty was running around with a team of guys who were seriously spun out. The loonies' loonies. Morty had known these guys through borstals and young prisoners' nicks and although he was only a fringe member of the outfit he was, as ever, extremely loyal to them in that very fuckin weird way those guy are to one another, bordering on the insane I would say. They're turning over any business that couldn't go running back to the Other People, sex shops and massage parlours, doing blags long after they went outta fashion, doing loads of drugs and not giving a fuck about keeping a low profile. One night after a party with loads of booze, hookers and chemicals, one of this team, who was always regarded as severely unstable even by this wired crew, has, in a tearful and quite pathetic outburst, told all these geezers he loves them and then put a shooter in his mouth and shot himself dead in front of about ten witnesses. Now this is a dilemma cos this desperate posse can't very well go calling an ambulance because they're wanted all over London and the Home Coun?ties. Even if they did explain the truth, all ten of them telling the exact same story, cozzers, the police, ain't gonna believe a fuckin word of it.
'What, he just decided to put the sawn-off in his mouth and pull the trigger?'
'Yeah, that's how it went down.'
'Oh right, that's all right then.'
Like fuck it was gonna happen like that. They're gonna think that there was some kinda dispute among all these volatile nutcases, who could fall out over a perceived dirty look, and this geezer, Kilburn Jerry, got topped or it was a party game gone wrong. Morty was somehow roped into getting rid of the mangled, headless body but someone fucked up by being just too fuckin untogether and Morty got nicked big-time. He was charged with disposing of a body unlawfully or accessory after the fact and was given eight years, of which he served five and a quarter. The crown actually accepted that the guy had killed himself and the guys who had been originally charged with 'murder due to joint venture' were getting acquit?ted at the Old Bailey while Morty was being weighed off. All the time Morty kept schtum and did his time. Name, rank and serial number was all they ever got out of him and this earns the respect of his peers, both inside and out, both now and then. I can see why he don't entertain any nut-nuts.
Clarkie is the youngest child in one of those fuckin huge families that you just don't get anymore, not since the arrival of the pill anyway. If this business had an elite officer corps then Clarkie would be a product of it. The Clark family are still a major force in this part of town, in any part of town come to that. The Old Man Clark and the elder brothers have given up robbing banks, mainly cos they can't get out the front door to put a bet on without the Robbery Squad ready-eyeing them there and back. A couple of them got fitted up very tight last time out so they've moved on to less obvious undertakings to provide the corn. Anyways, all that hitting the high street banks with the jolly old sawn-off went out with sideboards and radiograms, three-piece whistles with twenty-four-inch lionels, although it still goes on, of course, but it's very much a desperate pursuit these days, very much the preserve of crackheads and junkies. It's not the giggle it once was. Clarkie spent his early childhood years being shunted around the country from nick to nick, from Parkhurst up to Durham, to see the Old Man or one of the older brothers, cos the Prison Service kept them on the move, dispersed around the country, otherwise they might have caused a whole lotta grief if they were to get too comfortable for too long in one place, but I reckon the Clark family still gave the Home Office a hard time. They always made the kangas earn their shillings. The Junior Clark must have taken all this in and decided that a career on the pavement with a shooter was not for him, too risky, too much like hard work if you're captured, so he fired his dough and his lot in with me, Morty and Terry. He decided on a career in commerce if you like. I think Old Man Clark musta hada word with Jimmy Price cos one day me and Morty suddenly had junior partners by virtue of a decree handed down by King James. It was diplomatic to cut them a deal cos otherwise they would have ended up as serious rivals for our bitta business. It stuck in the throat to start with but in the end it made a lotta sense.
When I go it'll be Clarkie who'll be doing what I do now, brokering the stuff, working with the contacts I've made, keeping track of the money, working out who's owned what, keeping a healthy float stashed, making sure the gear's up to scratch and when we cut it we don't completely tear the arse outta it. So far I've only hinted that I'm on my way out but my mind's made up. I'll let these geezers know when the time is right.
If Clarkie's next in line for my job and I work things out with him then Terry works more closely with Morty on the security side of things. He can be a hothead can Terry but Morty's taken him under his wing and will eventually round the rough edges offa him cos you can't have guys around you who are forever going ballistic. If people keep losing their temper and ironing people out all the time it starts to lose its mystique, it's no surprise anymore, the threat's gone, but Terry's young and he'll learn. Down in the lower levels of this swindle you need your bashers, people respond, but in our neck of the woods you gotta have a drop more savvy, a bit more brainpower to oil the wheels and get the job done. You have to threaten diplomatically. The thing with Morty and Terry is neither of them is all that big, not small either, but you can sense something about them. It's a I-don't-give-a-shit attitude like you'd have to kill the fuckers to stop them coming at you and I guess you would an all. They're like those cartoon characters that keep coming on towards you even after they've been blown up, had boulders dropped from heights on their heads, had dynamite strapped to them and been fired outta cannons and all that shit that by rights shoulda seen them off. It's in the eyes, there's a certain crazy little twinkle, it's in the walk, there's a kinda strut that just lets the other guy know that you're not to be fucked with, it's not an over-the-top plastic?gangsters bowl either. It's in the way these two talk to people, they let other guys know that there's a limit on how far they can have a laugh and a joke and you better keep your wits about you and not cross over that invisible line or you'll wake up in hospital regretting it. As the Roman general said, 'To keep the peace you must plan for war.'
I have to sometimes take a risk and let certain people know a bit more about our business than I would like, cos if guys don't know what you got for sale then how the fuck are they gonna be able to punt for it, and this means using a great deal of discretion. We can't advertise. I can really only entertain people who are somehow connected, who come to us quoted, that's to say someone has vouched for them, says they ain't undercover gathers or agent provocateurs, says they can pay their bills, ain't gonna be skanking anybody, gonna be talking to everyone with a bitta respect and ain't gonna be generally fuck-arsing around, calling stuff on, ordering gear, and then changing their minds at the last minute. We need to know that they mean business and, like the very best working girls, a policy of 'discretion assured' goes without saying. Like any business we're looking for the no-fuss repeat business.
How did I get here? A combination of rapid promotion through the ranks and having greatness thrust upon me. I got into the business by accident. I didn't leave school wanting to be a coke dealer, nobody did in those days, not like today where all these kids want to be in on the swindle. Everybody wants to be a drugsman. I reckon it must look very inviting, like piss-easy money, which it is when all goes well. Ten years ago when I started there wasn't the supply or the demand. A drop of charlie was still for pop stars and a birthday treat, something special, something worthy of comment. Nowadays it ain't even a fuckin luxury anymore to a lot of folk, it's more along the lines of a necessity. I'm sure they don't even notice they're tooting half the time. Sure, you always had your hardcore of cokeheads, like you always had your hardcore of smackheads and a few who couldn't make up their minds which camp they were in, but it wasn't so firmly entrenched in the heartland as it is now, it's everywhere you fuckin look, for fuck sake. There's guys I know who ten years ago were venomously anti-drugs. They would stand at the ramp in naff wine bars delivering speeches along the lines of 'I wouldn't touch that shit, it's fuckin poison and people who deal it are evil, scumbag, lowlife cunts, bloodsuck?ers.' Now these very same guys do all their shillings on charlie, in cold blood, fuck the consequences, grafting all week just to get charged up or maybe serving up a few grams to pals to pay for it. It's like someone's done a public relations job on dealers as well. They've gone from parasites to the guys everyone wants to know. If you know a good charlie dealer, it's like having the correct connections, like a tricky accountant or a crafty mort?gage broker. It puts you in the swindle. All those guys who serve up in gram deals, good gram deals mind, not with all the active ingredient chopped out, live like fuckin princes, get to go to all the best parties on one big freebie, cos everyone wants to be their bestest friend. No party's complete without the bugle. I've watched nineteen-year-old kids from scuzzy council estates tell pop stars and other household names to fuckin get in line and talk to them nice or they ain't getting nuffin, fuck all, not a fuckin sniff bullseye, and the celebrity punters have jumped to attention, apologised to the kid and waited on them to be served.